When the Staten Island Amazon Fulfillment Center opened on the borough’s West Shore in September, the 855,000-square foot behemoth brought with it the promise of some 2,000 full-time jobs as well as thousands more in construction and services. The first such center in the state and in the city, the modern warehouse, equipped with innovative robotic technology that picks, packs and ships customer items, was touted as an employment game changer, predicted to provide a lasting impact on Staten Island labor for many years to come.
But three months into operations, workers at the Bloomfield warehouse om Staten Island launched a campaign to unionize, citing problematic workplace conditions as the cause.
“Ever since they opened, management has forced everyone at the warehouse to work 12-hour shifts for five or six days a week,” Rashad Long, an order picker at the site, told reporters during a press conference on the steps of City Hall in December. “During our new-hire orientation, management promised us that the company would provide a shuttle service and ride shares to help us get to and from the warehouse, which is located in a remote area of the Island. That has not happened.”
Long also referenced health and safety concerns at the facility: Over-stuffed product bins and minimal breaks were among the chief complaints as was a lack of air conditioning.
“The third and fourth floors are so hot that I sweat through my whole shift, even when it’s freezing cold outside,” Long said. “We have asked the company to provide air conditioning for us, but they told us that the robots inside can’t work in cold weather, so there’s nothing they can do about it.”
The Staten Island workers were not the first to complain: Amazon has been criticized internationally for years after employees from a variety of warehouses leaked stories of tight deadlines, zero allowance for bathroom breaks and a high recurrence rate of jobsite injuries. But when questioned about worker’s attempts at unionizing and reports of substandard working conditions, the retail giant counters.
“Amazon associates are the heart and soul of our operations and the company maintains an open-door policy that encourages employees to bring their comments, questions and concerns directly to their management team for discussion and resolution,” noted Rachael Lighty, regional manager of external communications for Amazon Operations.
“We respect employees’ right to choose to join a labor union, however, stating that our Staten Island workers want a union is not a fair representation of the vast majority of the employees at this site,” Lighty continued. “Furthermore, these comments are not demonstrative of the hundreds of thousands of employees across the country who enjoy Amazon’s fulfillment center culture and say that they would recommend working at Amazon to family and friends. We are proud of the safe and positive work environments we offer associates and want to share it with customers and the general public so they can see first-hand what happens after they click ‘buy’ on Amazon. A lot of stories about working in our FCs are inaccurate and misguided so we encourage anyone to see for themselves. Thousands of people have already visited our sites and we encourage all to visit www.amazon.com/fctours to find out more.”
Lighty, who said that since 2011, Amazon has invested more than $2 billion in New York State through its customer fulfillment network, cloud infrastructure and compensation to employees, credits with company with contributing an additional $1 billion to New York’s economy.
“Using Input-Output methodology developed by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Amazon estimates its investments in the state have created an additional 6,000 indirect jobs on top of the company’s direct hires,” she stated.
Quoting Staten Island salaries at $17 – $23 an hour, Lighty says that full-time Amazon employees are also eligible for comprehensive benefits, starting on day one of their employment, including healthcare, vision, dental, 401(k) with 50 percent match and a network of support to help employees succeed.
“Employees also receive generous maternity and family leave benefits including up to 20 weeks of paid leave, a flexible Ramp Back Program and our Leave Share Program that allows employees the ability to share their paid leave with their spouse or partner,” Lighty said. “Innovative programs like Career Choice, which pre-pays 95 percent of tuition for employees to go back to school in fields that are in high-demand, regardless of whether those skills are relevant to jobs at Amazon, are also offered. The Staten Island fulfillment center has a dedicated Career Choice classroom, where, starting in January 2019, employees may take courses from the local community college or other accredited educational institutions. Not only does bringing classes to employees cut down on commute times and transportation barriers, it inspires others to participate and generates encouragement from peers.”
But reports of robots replacing jobs and the lingering stigma of employee mistreatment have many industry experts questioning the company’s motives.
“It’s a myth that automation destroys net job growth,” Lighty responded to those accusations. “In fact, as we continue to grow at rapid speeds, it will be critical to add more jobs in addition to automation. We cannot deliver the best possible value or experience to our customers without a larger workforce and advanced automation.”
Lighty adds that human workers are still a very necessary part of Amazon’s factories.
“We regularly look at our operations and evaluate how we can bring technology to create new solutions for employees,” she concluded. “In the case of picking, items now come directly to employees. It’s great to keep employees focused on tasks where high-judgment is needed. For example, humans can look at a pallet of maple syrup and understand how best to unpack it. Robots aren’t yet able to easily detect what kind of liquid is in a container or if it’s spilled within is packaging. Humans can easily understand what they’re unpacking and then find a way to safely unpack it without causing further damage. Clearly robots and maple syrup don’t mix well!”